INTERVIEW: Fighting a Country with Words, 4 Years a Chinese Prisoner

INTERVIEW: Fighting a Country with Words, 4 Years a Chinese Prisoner
Photo Credit: Reuters/達誌影像

What you need to know

'The history of mankind has gone on for thousands of years, and that of the Communist Party only a few decades. Perhaps one day when they collapse, your books will still exist.'

“I’ll return to Sichuan once China falls apart.”

A loud chuckle follows Liao Yiwu’s (廖亦武) words. And then a few seconds of silence, though a faint smile lingers.

With his bare head, clean-shaven face and loose faded black tee-shirt, Liao is a bit intimidating upon a first encounter. His eyes flash behind half-rimmed thin glasses and occasionally dart around an outdoor cafe in Taipei as if on the lookout for someone. But Liao can hardly be blamed, and despite all he has been through, the 58-year-old has a surprisingly good humor.

In 1990, the Chinese poet-turned-author was thrown in prison for composing a long poem, “Massacre,” which commemorated the thousands that were killed during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

Physically and mentally tortured, he suffered mental breakdowns and attempted suicide twice in the four years he was imprisoned. But Liao also took away, or in some cases was “force fed,” the stories of fellow inmates which he later documented in his memoir, “For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.”

“Being thrown in prison ended my life as a poet,” Liao says.

In the years following his release, Liao would publish collections of interviews with people from the lower levels of Chinese society, novels about living in communist China, and essays criticizing the Communist Party.

Though his books are banned in China, they are accessible through underground bookstores and the internet, and have been published in countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, the U.S., and Germany, with translations in English, German, Polish and French among others. He has received numerous awards including the German Geschwister-Scholl-Preis (2011) and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2012).

Liao was denied permission to leave China 15 out of 16 times, and the one time he was allowed to leave the country was after writing an open letter to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2010.

The writer currently resides in Berlin, Germany, since his escape from China in 2011, and occasionally travels to other countries for human rights or book events. But his latest visit to Taiwan was difficult; Liao says Taiwan Representative to Germany Shieh Jhy-wey (謝志偉), who invited him, had to phone and email the Taiwan government several times to make his visit possible.

With the Chinese government cracking down further on freedom of expression in the country and Hong Kong, increasingly more writers, activists, publishers and booksellers have made appearances in Taiwan. But Liao says though he really likes the Taiwanese people and the country’s liquor (Kinmen Kaoliang and Kavalan Whiskey, to be exact), he would never move to Taiwan because his local publisher is too small and could never support him.

“I have said it before, ‘I will live wherever my readers are most,’” says the writer.

Liao nevertheless keeps a close eye on events occurring in Taiwan and around the world. His second and previous visit to Taiwan was in 2015, and Liao says he senses a different atmosphere this time, especially with the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) government.

“The importance of Taiwan has increased immensely compared with the last time I was here, because it’s now a pawn for major political powers,” says the writer.

But Liao also points out that some Taiwanese are unable to “talk seriously” about many issues, which makes it seem like entertainment is the only thing Taiwan is about, other than street food.

“There happens to be a kind of consumerism. And when consumerism is prevalent, people neglect a country’s underlying values: freedom, democracy, and human rights. These don’t come easily,” says Liao. “It took Taiwan a lot of effort to reach its current level of democracy. It can be considered as a model for the Chinese-speaking world, but this democracy is fragile.”

Taiwan should, like some Western countries, emphasize those three core values – freedom, democracy, human rights –the writer says. More people need to document Taiwan’s history, especially its past dictatorship. Liao will also be introducing three to five Taiwanese authors at Berlin’s International Literature Festival in September, noting the importance of sharing works about history with the international community.

The writer recalls a past conversation with the Dalai Lama in which the spiritual leader said, “A political power is nothing in the course of history. The history of mankind has gone on for thousands of years, and that of the Communist Party only a few decades. Perhaps one day when they collapse, your books will still exist.”

These words have been Liao’s main motivation to keep fighting his war of words, and he believes he can prevail.

“I’m using my words to resist a country. This country is a power of lies. It deceives and is ruthless,” says Liao. “I’m like an ant fighting against an elephant, but the ant won’t necessarily be first to die. Wouldn’t you say so?”

Another roar of laughter. And then the same silence and slightly wistful smile.

Editor: Edward White